Paul Morris, Treasure Island Media's Maverick Talks About Porn, HIV, & "The Complex Behavioral Language" Of Gay Sex - Part 2

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We continue our chat with porn pariah Paul Morris. If you didn't read part 1 of our interview with Paul Morris of Treasure Island Media, you can check it out here.

LTASex: I must say that I do find your crusade to destroy the HIV closet and rally against, as you call it, “big pharma” commendable. However, I wonder if you may be going a bit too far with your efforts. Sure HIV medication has reached a level sophistication and availability that HIV is very manageable in developed nations, but the same could be said of cancer, diabetes, kidney failure, and a myriad of other maladies. Why should a person take less care to prevent HIV than cancer or diabetes?

Paul Morris: The point is that we aren’t taking less care to prevent HIV acquisition.  We are doing more and we are doing better than with cancer and diabetes.  In India, for example, the number of infections dropped by 50% this year. 

The truly astonishing fact, though, is that we continue to embrace and allow the absolutely unnecessary and ruinous stigma--the shame and fear--associated with HIV.  Human beings are social above all else.  This is particularly true of men.  And, since we are ontologically based in social replication, it’s even more the case with queer men.  We will passively allow ourselves to die before we risk social shame.  Until all trace of the social stigma of being poz--or neg--is eradicated, HIV will remain a far greater problem than it has to be.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken or corresponded with men from suburban or rural American areas who are suicidally self-destructive because of the social isolation that results from anti-HIV prejudice and ignorance.

And finally, I don’t see the worth of living life as a process of avoiding an endless series of possible problems and diseases.  As Ram Dass used to say, you don’t reach enlightenment based on the number of hamburgers you didn’t eat.  If your life is organized around negativity and avoidance, you’re really missing the point.  For example, I smoke cigars.  Filmmaker Samuel Fuller said, “A woman is just a script, but a cigar is a motion picture.”  Well, if you happen to like women and you don’t smoke cigars that quote will be nonsense.  But if you know cigars and understand the experience, it makes all the sense in the world.  If I lit up a cigar in public now, I’d be chastised for endangering myself and everyone else with nineteen different varieties of cancer and mayhem.  Same with balls-out queer sex, the kind I love, the kind that holds the deepest meaning for me.  What’s the value of living a life that’s careful and safe but devoid of meaning? 

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LTASex: You recently began promoting James Roscoe and Brad McGuire as porn’s first HIV discordant  couple. Why was this important for you to do?

Paul Morris: Actually, I didn’t promote them as porn’s first anything. I announced that we’re happily continuing our relationship with them, that one of them is poz and one is neg, and that they’re in a successful longterm relationship. The press then announced variously that I was using one of them to spread AIDS, that the poz one (James) had a fetish for only having sex with neg men, that I was wantonly promoting 2011 as the year of seroconversion, and so on. All untrue. The NY Daily Post said something about me promoting sex between poz and neg men, still missing the point. Brad and James have been partners for years and this is a reality of their relationship. It was important to be open and honest about their status simply because it’s true. There are many, many poz/neg couples--gay and straight. It’s a natural and healthy relationship that deserves to be openly acknowledged, represented and embraced. If I was promoting anything, I was promoting reality and honesty.

LTASex: You talk a lot about honesty, the true reality of sex, for the vast majority of people, is that it covers a huge spectrum, not simply what you document. In your essay “No Limits: Necessary Danger in Male Porn” you acknowledge this, “…all acts of queer sex should be represented on screen with equal honesty. The entire spectrum of behavior from innocent to depraved, from life-affirming to death-enhancing should be available for the viewers.” Reading that made me wonder how you justify only making “depraved” and “death enhancing” porn? If you are the only company making porn with honesty, do you not feel some sort of obligation to fill the rest of the gap?

Paul Morris: First off, I wouldn’t say that we’re the “only company making porn with honesty”.  Everyone does their best; everyone works hard to make the best possible porn.  The problem is that a good number of the practitioners believe that they understand what’s best for the viewers, that the viewers need to be led by the hand.  That leads to condescension, dishonesty, propaganda.

As for only making porn that's exclusively either depraved or death-enhancing, I compulsively shoot everything, including a vast number of male “solos”. (Of course there are many who believe that even masturbation is sinful and death-enhancing, but I don’t think you’re among them.)  I’ve shot many oral sex videos (Cocksucking seems to come and go on the list of death-enhancing--lately there’s a new fear as we’re being told that sucking cock is more likely to give you throat cancer than smoking.) and nipple-play videos. I also have photographed hundreds of nude men who are simply standing still and displaying themselves (You can find many free examples of my photos with commentary at http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulmorristim).  To the best of my ability I spend every waking hour studying, photographing, documenting and videotaping men--or planning photo and video sessions with men.  If I had the time to do more and record more, I would be doing it.  I do my best to show every aspect of male sexuality and physicality in my work.

The male of the species is my life obsession.  Every waking moment is given to studying and loving them in all their behaviors and manifestations.  It’s who I am and it’s what I do. 

LTASex: Many other STIs are spread through having sex without a condom. Some of those are other incurable viruses. Why do you think we focus on HIV so much?

Paul Morris: Habit, nostalgia and money. For example, so many people depend on keeping hiv a terrifying crisis so they can justify their bloated “non-profit” salaries. And gay organizations across the country would become purposeless if they didn’t have the evergreen fallback of hiv for their fundraising projects.

Recently a spokesman for an AIDs-centric non-profit wrote a ludicrous article called “Forgotten But Still Here” arguing that gay men have forgotten about hiv and no longer think about it. His personal fear is certainly more understandable when you learn that his base salary from the non-profit is $300,000 per year. And that his non-profit receives support and funding from condom producers and from big pharma, entities that rely on hiv for their profit and growth. So there’s an engrained web of economic dependence on maintaining hiv hysteria. Another problem, of course, is that hiv has become nearly a synonym for gay, and the culture of gay has all but merged with an attachment to hiv-based emotion and activity. If most of the hiv-based organizations and events were converted to support the development of a queer culture that is open, complex and creative, I can guarantee that suicide, sickness and depression would decline radically. But we’ve allowed ourselves as a subculture to become addicted to hiv outrage and ignorance.

LTASex: You use phrases such as “the complex behavioral language of sex among men” and “crucially complex phenomenon” to describe man on man sex. Some people would say that you are reading too much into a simple act, others would say argue that man on man sex is no different than any other type of sex; what would you say to these people? Why is gay sex, in particular, so intriguing to you?

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Paul Morris: This is a very important group of questions.  It deserves a book as a response.  I’d start by referring you to “Foucault’s History of Sexuality”; Lee Edelman’s “No Future”; and Bersani/Phillips’ “Intimacies”.  These three texts taken together would give a solid basis for a consideration of the extremely complex psycho-social functions and meanings of queer sex.  For example, Bersani argues for the importance of barebacking among men, comparing the practice to a particular variant of Catholic ascetic mysticism.  He states that queer sexual practice could be the basis for a new kind of identity and social order that challenges the “nuclear family” which is, as you know, based on hetero-sex organized toward reproduction.

All three texts situate queer sex as both a physical and a political practice. In fact, they explicitly connect the sexual to the political.  If this is the case--and I believe it is--then the rhetoric of queer sex and sexual practice is a crucial phenomenon and one that should be represented scrupulously. If you have queer sex being represented on film by a person who has neither the knowledge nor the commitment warranted (something directed, say, by a heterosexual or by an assimilationist gay), the result tends either toward cartoon or propaganda.  The basis of queer identity--individual and social--is anchored in the complexity of the physical rhetoric of sex.  Misrepresentations of this are as damaging and dangerous to queer existence as the Nazi “documentaries” of the Warsaw ghetto were to the lives of the resident Jews. 

Looking at it another way, the life-long project of the construction of the queer self is necessarily a process that’s driven by desire.  We create--design--our selves not only according to what and how we desire, but more importantly how we specifically act from within that desire.  It’s through sex that the nascent queer learns its native language.  For heterosexuals, sexual practice is overwhelmingly determined by reproduction and the traditions of the nuclear/consumerist family.  It’s the curse of heterosexuality, really, but at this stage of the game it’s unavoidable.  But sex for a queer is a realm of practice saturated with physical, spiritual and emotional desire free of any genetic or reproductive purpose. As Gregory Bateson liked to point out, the removal of purpose is the birth of wisdom.  And it’s the admixture of purposelessness and creative fire that makes queer sex so “different” and so important. 

I’ll attach one brief concrete example from practice, a clip from a blindfold gangbang shot by Liam Cole in London. Only men are involved.  If the bottom were a woman, the gestures--and the meanings of the gestures--would have been decidedly different. In the clip, there are a multitude of interesting behaviors, but when you watch it, pay attention to hands. 

Just prior to the beginning of the clip, a man has just shot a load up the ass of the blindfolded man.  The bottom turns around to suck the semen off the cock.  At 00.00.05, his left hand presses precisely between the abdominal fat and the pubic hair of the top.  The connection functions as acknowledgment, control (“Stay still and let me suck your cock, even though it’s very sensitive.”) and a gauging of the body of the top (the bottom is, after all, blinded).  To fully understand the meaning of the gesture, of course, you would have to have been in that situation yourself at some point in your sexual history.   

At 00.00.07, the bottom’s hand moves to the shaft of the top’s cock.  This removes the connection with the top as “person” and focuses on the top as “cock”.  The bottom is allowing himself to focus all of his attention on the phallus.  At this point (00.00.09), the camera pulls back (you hear the bottom moan in appreciation for the cock and the taste of semen) and you can see that the top has had his hand on the side of the bottom’s head, a gesture of connection, control, acceptance and gentle dominance.  The sounds that the men are making are recognizably spontaneous and sincere.  At 00.00.11, simultaneously, the bottom slaps the top’s cock against his tongue and the top gently slaps the side of the bottom’s head.  Both gestures have complex meanings and are meant to acknowledge the pleasure and satisfaction of the experience as well as the fact that it’s ending (the top is leaving now that he’s shot his load).  At 00.00.12, there’s a cut to a tripod camera that shows the larger group.  In the background you can see a man stroking his cock. On the left (in the foreground), a man is standing with his hips forward and his hands almost behind his back. The top (in the light) pats the bottom’s head strongly enough so that you can hear the slapping sound.  Simultaneous to the end of the top’s slapping, both other men--younger than the more dominant top who has just finished--reach out toward the bottom’s head.  The man on the left has acted first, so the man in the background quickly defers and pulls his hand back.  At 00.00.16, we cut to the cameraman’s held camera, seeing the action close again. [Note how important it is to maintain the documentary integrity of the edits.  With poor editing from one camera to the other this entire sequence of events could have been muddied or lost.]

Now the top’s hand is resting on the wrist of the bottom.  The other man’s hand is now cupping the bottom’s head. Following the action from here to around 00.00.19, you’ll see that the older top’s hand on the bottom’s wrist signified to the bottom that he was leaving, that it was time to let go.  At 00.00.19 you can see the bottom releasing the top’s cock as the top takes his cock in both hands.  Techniques of connection and disconnection in complex situations like this are extremely important.  In the meantime, the younger top pats the bottom’s head just as the older (and more dominant) top had, but he does so more tentatively, more gently.  As his hand pulls back, you can see a tiny movement from the wrist that suggests equivocation and uncertainty.

At 00.00.23, as the older and more dominant top backs away, the younger top (his cock hanging flaccid) steps in, places his cock over the head of the bottom.  They are very close together, but it’s hard to tell if there’s any actual contact between the cock and the bottom’s face.  The younger top doesn’t place his cock in the mouth of the bottom, doesn’t lift up the bottom’s head.  He seems to pat his cock on the face of the bottom and stroke himself.  This leaves the bottom’s mouth open.  The bottom rubs his own tongue for a moment.  The second young top, the one who had been in the background stroking his cock and had reached out (at around 00.00.12) but had deferred to the other young top now reaches in (at 00.00.30) and places his hand between the other top’s cock and the bottom’s mouth.  His wedding ring is clearly displayed.

He rubs the bottom’s tongue (as the bottom had, but more firmly).  You can see that the back of his hand is moving the other young top’s cock at the same time. 

So what is this extremely brief moment “about”?  How does it refer specifically to male-male sex, defining it as something not only different from hetero-sex but also complex and full of meaning?  Again, a book would be warranted.  But I think it’s clear that there’s a wonderfully complex architecture of dominance and submission, a ranking of levels of dominance, a process of education, experiment and learning.  All of it is driven by both sexual and social desire and the promise of variants of fulfillment and satisfaction and self-definition.  Gender issues are completely absent: even though the bottom is blindfolded and wears a jockstrap, his maleness and his desire for a deep communion with other-maleness is always obvious.  His blindfold removes issues of rote “attractiveness” and allows the others to base their behaviors on pure physicality rather than in performance expectations based in muscularity, youth, cock-size and so on.  The sounds that are made, including words spoken, are ancillary to and in support of the on-going physical acts. 

Incidentally, the invalidation and denial of this primary power and complexity of queer sex has been the fatal error of every single anti-HIV crusade in the West.  The efforts to reduce queer sex to something that can be either rational or safe have inevitably backfired, leading the efforts of most AIDS service organizations and individuals to a disastrously misguided “just say no” or "stay negative" mentality.  Telling a young queer to use sex safely and sanely is like telling a cake to use flour wisely. 

While I’m not, strictly speaking, an essentialist, I do believe that there are deep and abiding differences between queer and straight in almost all behavioral arenas. This difference is particularly apparent with regard to sex.  This isn’t to say that straight sex hasn’t been informed by queer sex--and vice versa.  The history of fisting in the US would be a great example of this, as would the history of the use of poppers. 

 So in answer to your first question--whether or not I’m “reading too much into a simple act”--the answer is no.   A culture is defined by those elements for which a majority of its constituents are expert.  Once a general experiential proficiency is lost, the realm of practice becomes specialized and ossified. That causes the demise of the culture. Patrick Moore writes about the legacy of queer sexual creativity in American urban centers in his “Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality”.  He cogently argues from a standpoint less theoretical than that of Foucault, Bersani and Edelman that queer sexual practice is a central and vital creative element of our culture.  He uses the metaphor of art and writes of sex as a crucial creative realm for queer culture.

Of course, there are many who would look at, say, a Rembrandt and say, “What’s the big deal?”  Or a De Kooning or a Pollack and so on.  But being aware and functional within a living culture with a physical language as complex as sex requires constant exposure and study.  That’s one of the purposes of queer pornography.

LTASex: What can we look forward to from you personally, and your company as a whole?

Paul Morris: Pornography is my native tongue. I’ll keep talking

I would like to take a moment to thank Paul Morris for this wonderful oppurtinty. This type of intimate access is one that I would have never expected for him to offer so readily.  For more information on Paul Morris or Treasure Island Media, you can visit their website. Obviously it is very NSFW.

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